What Conservative Canon?

In 2012, I came across a scholarly article in a journal on rhetoric on "The Conservative Canon and Its Uses."  The author, Michael J. Lee, undertook to explain why the American conservative movement had put together a "secular canon" featuring its leading thinkers.  According to Lee, this selection of books and seminal authors has been designed to forge a "spiritual bond" among groups that otherwise have exhibited sharp disagreement.  Conventional libertarians, social traditionalists, and anarcho-capitalists, to name just three such groups, have been able to cooperate on common purposes because a canon has been created that embraces figures from all of these traditions.  Certain rhetorical phrases, moreover, have been repeatedly identified with this shared heritage, including references to "permanent things" and "values." 

This canon has been periodically updated, and with the ascendancy of the neoconservatives and Straussians in the 1980s, certain golden oldies, like the works of Russell Kirk and the Southern Agrarians, lost their place in the conservative canon.  This did not come about without protest, and I recall receiving angry notes from members of the Old Right complaining about how their favorites in the canon had been replaced by such relative newcomers as Allan Bloom, Harry Jaffa, and Irving Kristol.  In 2001, Jonah Goldberg wrote a commentary in National Review in response to his devotees who asked him to name the authors whom he would place in the "conservative canon."  Goldberg proposed figures he identified with National Review.  He then almost sheepishly explained that he should probably add to his list Bloom's Closing of the American Mind but couldn't quite make it through Bloom's exposition of the dangers of the "Nietzscheanization of the Left."  As a scholar of German intellectual history, I would note that Jonah was missing very little.

The American conservative movement in all its permutations has steadily pushed the idea of a "secular canon."  I myself used to compose "celebratory statements" for the old canon, and I constructed such statements for Modern Age in the 1970s and 1980s at the request of the editor, George Panichas.  In 1987, I commented favorably on a study by then-North Carolina senator John P.  East. In my remarks on East's The American Conservative Movement: The Philosophical Founders, I dutifully praised some of those figures who supposedly prepared the way for a movement that was already rupturing in the 1980s.  The figures whom I extolled back then as "philosophical founders" were among others Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Ludwig von Mises, Frank Meyers, Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss, and Friedrich Hayek.  Except for the fact that some of them contributed essays or reviews to National Review or consented to give lectures at a conservative movement seminar, the heroes I would praise inhabited different "philosophical" universes.

It may therefore be useful to re-examine the practice of applying the term "canon" to the changing favs of a changing political movement.  This term came into common use with the authorization of sacred biblical texts by councils of the early church, between 382 and 419 A.D.  These councils were convoked to decide which writings showed indisputable divine inspiration.  The assembled doctors of the church excluded texts that were regarded as either false or less inspired than what they included.  The churchmen obviously took into account whether texts to be considered were congruent with their own theological positions.  "Canon" has also been applied, more loosely, to certain civilizational classics that once made up the core of humanistic education.  This list would have included the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Thucydides, and later great Western and some non-Western thinkers.  The Bible was regarded as an integral part of this humanistic canon.

This seems quite different from what the conservative movement has in mind when it seeks to memorialize its stars.  Here the question is not about sacred texts or the educational foundations of our civilization.  Rather, we are discussing authors and texts that have helped a movement attract members, woo donors, and achieve mainstream political respectability.  Certain overriding concerns were already present in the conservative movement that William F. Buckley and National Review brought together in the mid-1950s.  Buckley's own concerns – anti-communism, returning to more of a free-market economy, and recognizing the Christian or Judeo-Christian basis of our society – were uppermost in the construction of his project, and it undoubtedly influenced his choice of collaborators and the books he recommended.  The idea of a "conservative canon" came later and, in my opinion, was a pompous, unfortunate idea.

This is not meant to suggest that all those works that have belonged to various conservative canons are equally insightful.  James Burnham's Suicide of the West is certainly for me more instructive than the book with the same title recently published by Jonah Goldberg.  I also view Burnham as far more of an authentic man of the right and far more of a scholar than the National Review senior editor.  But if I were trying to explain which author is more in line with the present conservative movement, my answer would have to be Goldberg.  Very few who now call themselves "conservatives" would likely relate to Burnham's work.  Self-described conservatives of a younger generation would come away from it condemning the author as a hopeless reactionary.  In his Suicide of the West, Burnham dwells on racial and cultural inequalities and, from what I can tell, opposed the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.  This does not diminish my respect for the author as a political critic, but it does suggest why a conservative movement that has moved to the social left along with the rest of our political culture would not want to showcase Burnham's Suicide of the West.  Goldberg's work is simply much safer.

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